On the word legend, he blew me a kiss. His engine was starting to rev up now.
“Nonsense, I was eating the pound cake every day. That’s right, every day, and thank you, I’m well out of it.”
“I . . . I never knew.”
But, of course, I did.
Jerry was sitting in a small booth in the rear of a Malibu coffee shop, one of those garden restaurants with bad lighting, across from the coast highway. It was breakfast time and the place was nearly empty. I had entered alone looking for a seat near the window where I could read the trades, but when our eyes met, the reunion became inevitable. Finding another table was not an option.
“So, how long has it been, Jerry? Two years, four years?”
“You think I count? For me, Hollywood and everyone in it died and I’ve never been happier, never.”
“Have a seat. Join me.”
I wasn’t ready yet.
“Lookame . . . I’m so fuckin happy . . . c’mon, siddown.”
“Well . . . Jer, to me you’ll always be the guy that told Ovitz that you were going to put him in the penalty box, and that’s when he was Ovitz.”
“I did, didn’t I?” Jerry grinned.
On that note, I could have graciously ended this exchange. No reason to start up this horror again, but I guess I couldn’t resist. A look back at the past, revisiting one of the wasted. Who could resist?
Actually, at first I hadn’t recognized Jerry. It had been only five years, but he seemed smaller, less square-jawed. Sudden loss of power, engines failing, and a public dumping could affect anyone’s appearance. After all, wouldn’t Katzenberg seem a whole lot smaller without a job? Standing awkwardly trying to figure my next move, I tried to hide Variety and The Hollywood Reporter inside my New York Observer. It was too late. I got the “Oh, you still read that silly shit, do ya?” look as he patted the seat at the end of the banquette.
When I finally sat, he stood.
He pointed to his waist with his left hand and his chest with his right.
“Look at me.”
“Pilates. I could lift this table and throw it through the kitchen and then touch my toes with my legs crossed.”
“Jerry, please sit down, I’m getting scared.”
“I’m so fit I could kick my son’s ass.”
The last time I’d seen him, he was one of the few running Hollywood. You know that catch phrase studio head? Well, he was one of those. He had told me then that soon, very soon, he was going to get out. “Get outta Hollywood and get a life.” He’d said that the losses were no longer salved by the victories. And Jerry had had some losses. Movies were bombing in bunches. They were his calls. Some of those movies I’d produced. He was starting to drink at lunch. He said that just reading the trades pushed him to the rim of rectal bleeding. There was no good news. If a story about him was negative, he shuddered. If an item aggrandized an acquaintance, his stomach tightened. Greed and envy grinding him up before noon. Near the end, his own staff struggled to make eye contact with him at the Monday morning meetings.
When the bell tolls for studio heads, instead of jail time they get stock options. They get ceremoniously dumped and are soon forgotten. Being the effects of such a twisted system can beat the shit out of the very best–especially when the flow ain’t quite going their way. Jerry was just another one of those guys on the chain.
He was big.
“Are you sayin . . . that you don’t look back?”
“That’s right,” he said.
I must say his bitterness was brilliantly concealed.
“Jerry, I don’t mean in some sentimental way, but you know . . . out of curiosity.”
“Curiosity’s not my thing.”
“C’mon, there’s gotta be some tap dance on some grave tha—”
“I know where you’re going. You think I want to get even with—”
“Last I recall, Jerry, retribution used to be your vitamins.”
“That chapter ended.”
“You were the one that said when I run somebody over, I want the cocksucker facing me so I can enjoy watching him experience the full impact.”
“Yoga. I’ve buried my anger.”
“I only see blue skies now.”
After ten minutes with Jerry, I couldn’t avoid reflecting on my own Hollywood mortality. Let’s face it, time was running out. In fact, the sand in the hourglass was hemorrhaging. For me, producing hit movies had become an increasingly far-fetched affair. And in this town, where “new” is best, I could feel that black hole of Hollywood purgatory waiting for me.
As I continued my catch-up with Jerry, my mind drifted. Strangely, I started to wonder if David Begelman had shot himself to avoid the nuisance of being alive while he was doing his time “out of the biz.” Truly a show business conundrum. Begelman, who had neatly survived the embarrassment of embezzling money when he’d run Columbia Pictures, had had a much tougher time when his horsepower dried up. Apparently, after being deposed, the horror of not getting a CAA agent on the phone turned out to be life-threatening.
I looked back at Jerry.
“You could use a hit, by the way,” he said.
Was that a vindictive remark? I couldn’t tell. His mouth, filled with oatmeal, hid his expression. Was he telling me that I would soon join the pack of the dispossessed? I think so.
“What do you mean, I need a hit?”
“Trust me, you need a hit.”
His smile was slight but dangerous. He was surely vibing me with “Get ready, you’re next, it’s almost over.” I admit I was vulnerable. It’s not that I hadn’t had my share of successes, but I’d just completed a five-year run at Twentieth Century Fox, and to say that I’d left that incompetent brothel bloodied, scorched, defeated, and monumentally pissed off would be a grand understatement.
“Last I checked, everyone needs a hit,” I said.
“For someone so blissfully out of the game, how’d you know?”
“Your face gives it away.”
“I think not.”
I looked down at the menu.
“Actually it’s a whole aura sort of thing,” he said. “Once you know what to look for, it’s as loud as acid-green paint.”
Perhaps I did feel a little rocky. I just didn’t know that it showed at nine in the morning. I had to wonder, if success smells so sweet, what must the other thing smell like? I guess even a slim dose of desperation travels across the table.
“What would you like to order?” the waitress interrupted.
I started. “Egg whites scrambled, tomatoes on the side, no potatoes, no bread, a side of well-done bacon, and black coffee.”
“Acid-green paint, clear as day.”
“The protein thing. Holding on to the withering testosterone, are you?”
“Lookit . . . It’s been five years and you’re already pimping my diet. Jerry, don’t let’s turn this thing into some darker thing. It’s too soon.”
Actually Jerry was raising some serious stuff. This wasn’t going to be a lesson in how to get by in Hollywood. This was about how to get out. We’re talking about the endgame here. Checkmate. What happens when the career begins to slide. It’s a myth that when people in this town lose their viability, they long for some motion-picture relief home. This is Hollywood! There is no relief. No one leaves without a fight, and no one ever thinks he’s too old. Even women executives in this town get erections. And by the way, let’s not be fooled by those of us pretending to leave. No one is going anywhere. Everyone is fiercely gripping their balls, as I bet Jerry was now. For those of us who are really in bad shape, steeped in false sentimentality, we tend to burst into a river of tears when someone says, “Whatever happened to Sydney Pollack?”
“I was just trying to point out that you don’t seem to be the kinda hit maker that makes the good old boys pleased to see you,” Jerry quickly added.
“Well, you’re not exactly Jerry Bruckheimer, if you know what I mean.”
“What’s your point?”
“Let’s get serious. I produce, or I try to produce, good movies. Some work, some don’t.”
“Whooey. Let’s not talk about good. Let’s talk about failure. This is a business. You ride in here trying to make money, and you get carried out if you don’t. Who are you fooling?”
“Hey, I’ve produced some hits.”
“Oh, I believe it’s been quite a while.”
“What kind of sinister shit is this? I came in here for breakfast, run into a bitter has-been . . .”
I hesitated. At least his frontal assault on my lack of success was more honest than the usual approach. Most times, within hours of the release of a movie that mercilessly tanks, your dearest Hollywood friends can’t pass up the chance to ask, “So how did your movie do?” Oh, they know how it did. They know the number. In fact, they know the number exactly. And they know its implications, but they can’t resist watching you squirm at the news. At least Jerry’s approach wasn’t camouflaged with pity.
I was starting to wonder when my food would come.
“You’re just pissed off because occasionally my phone rings and yours doesn’t,” I said.
“Don’t get so defensive. I was just trying to state the obvious. After all, it was you, I believe, who wrote, ‘In this town, three strikes and you’re out.’”
“Well, I was referring to—”
“You did say that, right?”
“But it was about—”
“If you’ll allow me another sports metaphor, it might be time for you to CLEAN OUT YOUR LOCKER.” He actually started to laugh, almost uncontrollably.
That’s it. I got up, gathered my papers. Fuck him. Hell, most in this town would have to wear paper bags with punched-out eyeholes to be seen sitting at a table with this guy. To be honest, if this weren’t such an out-of-the-way café, I wouldn’t be caught dead sitting here either. Jerry was one of the recently expunged. It’s a common theme: with loss of power comes loss of libido. Stand next to it and you’ll catch it.
“C’mon, sit . . . I have more to offer you than you think,” he said, wiping tears from his cheekbone.
“I don’t think so. Call me touchy.”
“Really, we should talk about this. I mean, “Oh, I make good pictures,” that’s a good one. You need help.”
“Jerry, let’s call it a day.”
“Please, I haven’t talked to a real live producer in days. People aren’t quite as happy to see me as they used to be.”
“It makes you wonder, doesn’t it?”
You had to hand it to him, he wasn’t running from his meteoric crash.
“Do you recall that movie where the little kid said he could see dead people, but they didn’t always know they were dead?” Jerry was on a roll.
“Does that have some kinda personal implication, Jerry?”
“Let’s just say that, sometimes after you’ve left the business, you can see through walls.”
My mood was darkening. “Let’s not start talking about corpses, Jerry, because I can already smell the rot.”
He gave me his biggest grin.
“I’ve become uninsultable.”
One of the few benefits of extinction, while all else crumbles, is the complete loss of vanity. The truth can no longer bite you in the ass.
Jerry had a point. Perhaps I had to take a hard look at those Fox years. I had produced a lot of movies, and—who was I kidding?—the overall results had been painful and often bloodstained. Maybe a thorough examination of the few small victories and the many vast defeats would not only reveal the process of making movies, but also explain the corkscrew smile I kept manufacturing at cocktail parties whenever someone said to me, “Well, I, for one, don’t care what anyone says, I really liked Pushing Tin.”
If I continued this messy exchange, I knew Jerry was going to get me to chew over those moments best left forgotten. He was going to revel in all of the gory details at my expense, and yet, call me a masochist, I was going to let him. In fact, I was getting inexorably drawn to the notion.
Times have certainly changed. Being a producer was never a bargain, but obsolescence was never expected. Had the producer turned into an emu?
The food finally arrived.
“Before we take this too far down the road, would you mind telling me what bog stuffing means?”
“Snorkeling, baby, bog snorkeling.” He then flicked his tongue in two quick, semicircular moves. No doubt about it, he was a beaut.
“Oh, dear lord” was all that I could whisper.
“What’s the difference, what it means? You might not realize this now, kid, but this could be your lucky day.”
“I sorta felt that way the moment I saw you, Jerry.”
“Use me right and I can help you.”
“Suffice it to say, the end of the road for me could be a glimmer of hope for you ” although, knowing you, I’m not so certain of that.”
“Last I checked, I was doin’ just fine.”
“Look at your eyes; they’ve lost their confidence.”
“What exactly are we trying to get at here, Jerry?”
“I’m trying to get you to look at the last few years, really look, and maybe, just maybe, it will give you the grace to continue.”
He was turning into Mr. Rogers, and I was becoming Sally Field.
“You care. You really care,” I said without a shred of enthusiasm.
“I do care,” he said, his eyes almost moistening with concern.
“I get it . . . I get it. This isn’t about me. You just want to hear the grim details. You’re lonely and my failures comfort you. What to give a studio head has-been for Christmas? I know! Fill his stocking with the bitter memories of a producer tailspinning out of control. That’ll keep him till Easter.”
“Actually, I can’t deny a certain delicious pleasure from all of this. By the way, did you hear about the movie producer who got robbed and beaten on his front lawn by the Crips after he was followed home from Mr. Chow’s?”
“That’s a good one.” He cackled with glee.
“Jerry, your heart is bigger than a bread box.”
Everyone, of course, knew about this incident, but only the most twisted were taking delight. I guess it just didn’t get weird enough for Jerry. A few years back, he was devouring producers, writers, agents, like chum. Now, his only sustenance was to sit on the sideline and watch them burn. Most people preferred sports.
“I want to hear it all . . . slowly, please.” He was begging now.
“What’s in it for me, again?”
“Let me count the ways: Hollywood salvation, a good throat-clearing, the will to go forward. Take your pick. I’m certain you will find it purging. It seems like a good bargain to me.”
He said this without his usual self-satisfied smirk. He was suddenly glowing with generosity and concern. Was he really interested? Not ole Jer. He used to be president of the Hollywood Venality Club. Could it be that the old warhorse wanted to shine a little light on those left behind?
“Jerry, let me get this straight. I get to delight you with all of the shit I’ve taken over the last few years, and your commiseration is going to make me feel good.”
“You are one sick fuck.”
“Think colonoscopy. Believe you me, it’s preventative. And besides, who else but me wants to hear it?”
He was vibrating now. The hook was in the water. He was having a terrific day.
“Just know, Jerry, if I were busy, I’d be gone.”
“I’m sure you would, but you’re not and I’m not. I want to hear it all. What was that first picture you did at Fox? Great Expectations! Let’s go torture another classic. Oh, boy . . . who can we cornhole after we’re finished with Dickens? Or was it that ‘bear’ thing that Mamet wrote? Was that the first picture? Oh, yeah, Alec Baldwin. I bet he’s a lot of fun. Loves producers, I hear. Hoo ha.”
The vein on the left side of his neck was pumping. He was known in the back rooms of Hollywood as the ultimate swine and there was no stopping him now.
“And how about that seventies rock movie? What was it called? Go Go Bliss or something like that.”
“It was called Sunset Strip.”
“What the hell was that? As I recall, Fox opened it in only one theater. How about that. One theater! A baby-killing! What a massacre that must have been. Your idea, was it?”
“I’m afraid so.”
“Fuck me . . . and they still let you continue after that? Please, save that barbarous tale for last. What visionaries those Fox execs must have been. Real high-watt bulbs, there. You must love those guys. Oh . . . wait . . . I almost forgot . . . Fight Club. Fight Club. Woowee . . . Good God, man, you really like to make people feel warm and fuzzy, don’t ya?”
He was certainly prepared. You had to give him that.
This was going to take more than a breakfast.